Ray Beck’s replacement as city manager will have to confront more than just daunting expectations and an empty seat.
A full plate of obligations to developers, a strained infrastructure and the need to continue overseeing the city’s growth management looms, along with the demand for more progressive leadership.
Amid expressions of respect for Beck’s
20-year tenure as city manager, colleagues and observers are looking forward to a new era for the city. Beck’s retirement announcement follows the departure of two other long-time city employees: Public Works Director Dick Malon and city Planning Director Lowell Patterson.
“The city has lost, over the last couple years, some of their principal department heads like public works and planning,” MU professor of rural sociology Rex Campbell said. “That means there isn’t going to be the historical wisdom for the new city manager to draw on.”
Despite the opportunity for change, roadblocks are already in place for the newcomer. Mayor Darwin Hindman said the new city manager must be capable of juggling the conflicting demands of growth.
“Columbia is growing and that puts stress on the viability of the city,” he said. “We have to work hard to maintain the quality trails, parks, museums and other sustainable kinds of planning.”
Karl Skala, former vice-chairman of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, said the conflict over development is more of a strain on financial than natural resources. The city is placing more of the financial burden of development on taxpayers, he said. All citizens are sharing in the costs of new infrastructure, but not all are reaping the benefits.
“If the development community wants to continue to enjoy the explosive growth they have been enjoying,” he said, “the public perception is that they’re going to have to pay their fair share.”
Beck and the City Council support a November ballot initiative that would raise the fees paid by developers for infrastructure improvements to their projects. But Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, argues that such fees only increase home prices.
“It just gets passed on to the consumer, and we end up pricing people out of the housing market,” he said.
The key issue for the next city manager will be finding an equitable way to fund the increasing demand for infrastructure improvements to accommodate the city’s growth, said Ken Midkiff, conservation chairman of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“There has been considerable applauding of the growth that’s taking place under Beck’s tenure, but at the same time that growth has caused serious problems,” Midriff said. “At some point somebody is going to have to say no.”
Campbell doubted that bringing in a new city manager will resolve that conflict.
“It is something that needs a considerable amount of political clout to accomplish,” he said.
Because of Columbia’s style of governance, Beck’s replacement will have the power to affect the flow of information and influence relationships between city departments, commissions and committees. As the representative body, the City Council decides what policies to implement, and the city manager is charged with implementing them. Under Beck, Skala said, that hasn’t been the case.
“We have a weak City Council and a very strong city manager,” he said, “and the City Council is supposed to be telling the city manager what to do.”
Midkiff agrees that Beck’s authoritative style has hindered the City Council’s policy-setting role. “As long as Mr. Beck has been there, the accusation is that he micromanages everything, controls the info that goes to the City Council and tells the city staff what to do,” he said. “The City Council goes by whatever recommendation comes from the city management.”
Skala said he hopes for a forward-looking city manager, someone who understands the balance of government. Good policy mandates accountability and transparency, he said.
Beck’s successor, he said, should establish an “open communication between the city and its departments.”
“Mr. Beck’s style is as if he wants those departments separated,” he said. “Whoever comes in ought to bring those departments together so he gets the best advice possible.”
Skala said there has been a failure to exchange information between Beck and the city’s advisory commissions. He said Beck — and city government in general — doesn’t like to refute advice in public, so Beck has exercised more control over the flow of information. Changing that is the key to having a new day in terms of the management of the city, Skala said.
The new city manager will also have to deal with tension between the city and the county over growth, infrastructure and government oversight. Laird points out that there is always bound to be friction in intergovernmental relations, and not just between the city and county.
Midkiff, Skala and Campbell all agreed that the opportunity for change will ultimately depend on the leadership skills and experience of the person who steps into the role.
“The position and policy have been established by the city manager,” Midkiff said. “Unless there’s some significant change in the direction of the new city manager, then I think all city management is going to continue on this path.”